Quality is a Probabilistic Function of Quantity



(Or: Why The Fastest Route to Doing Your Best Creative Work is to Show Up Every Day, Ship Early, and Ship Often.)

This is part seven in a series on creativity and entrepreneurship. You can find the previous articles here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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As people who care deeply about what we do and what we create, our goal is always quality. We’re aiming to write or design or record the best work we can; always seeking to get better.

Like I said last week, as a creative person, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the end product. You have this idea — this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see in your mind. You want to make that, and anything less is unacceptable.

But, when you’re there, in the mire of your own work, it usually feels like anything but quality. It usually feels like crap.

As a writer, I never cease to amaze myself at my inability to find the words I am looking for. And then, when I can’t find them, I have no choice but to use the less-exciting words which have come to mind rather than those perfect ones which always seem to escape me.

It is in those moments where I have to remember that quantity leads to quality. Or, put another way, I’ve become comfortable with falling short of my own lofty expectations.

Today, the goal isn’t perfection. It’s far more simple: The goal is to show up and do the best work that I can.

Don’t believe that you must chose between creating a lot of something, or creating one thing that is a masterpiece. The former leads to the latter.

Yes, I want to be a fantastic writer. Yes, I want to write engaging, clever, and quotable works. Yes, I want my articles to be insightful and memorable. But I’ll never reach it if I quit while things seem poor. I cannot allow myself to only write when it feels inspired and en route to greatness.

If we sit around and wait for quality it won’t come.

Quality must be pursued.

In an article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell cited psychologist Dean Simonton and brings up Simonton’s argument that quantity does, in fact, lead to quality:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ration of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, and observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport also argues that along with the ability to focus, quality is a byproduct of quantity.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

He then goes on to say that, “unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.”

Moreover, the idea that quantity leads to quality is the same case Geoff Colvin makes in his book, Talent is Overrated. Stating that the world’s top performers are, for the most part, people just like you and I but who have (a) put in far more hours practicing their craft and (b) made the most of their practice time by practicing with intentionality and deep focus.

“One day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.” — Russell Brand

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Consider the fairytale of Goldilocks and the three bears.

Goldilocks happens upon the home of three bears while they’re out on a walk. She comes in and tastes their porridge, sits in their chairs, and sleeps in their beds.

The first bowl of porridge was too hot; the second, too cold; but the third was just right. And likewise for the chairs she sat in and the beds she napped in.

So it is in our pursuit of quality, excellence, and breakthrough…

At first we feel like intruders; imposters. Everything we put our hand to is not quite right. Too hot, too cold, to big, too small, hard, soft.

But then, after enough perseverance and focus, eventually, we create something that’s just right.